On the night of August 8, 1969, a group of cult followers broke into a beautiful hillside villa nestled in the luxurious Los Angeles neighbourhood of Beverly Crest.
Their target had been Terry Melcher, a record industry professional who also happened to be the son of singer Doris Day. Earlier that summer, Melcher had decided against giving a record deal to their leader, Charles Manson – a slight he had taken personally.
Manson, an aspiring rockstar and career criminal with delusions of grandeur, hit back at the rejection by sending his now notorious ‘family’ members to the villa, ordering them to kill everyone there ‘as gruesome[ly] as you can’.
Speaking with The New York Times at the time of Manson’s trial, Rudolph Altobelli, a film and music talent manager who owned the residence, recalled how, in March of that same year, Manson had turned up to the estate’s guest house searching for Melcher, intending to seek out a contract with him.
Although Melcher had indeed rented the property, he had moved out in January. After learning of Melcher’s move, Manson attempted to arrange an appointment with Altobelli instead, still holding on to his hopes of finally breaking into the world of music.
However, uninterested, Altobelli, told Manson that he would be overseas for a year, after which point Manson made his way off the grand estate and back to his desert commune. When his followers returned a few months later, it wasn’t Altobelli or Melcher who suffered his cruel, bitter vengeance.
After Melcher moved away, the property was rented by famed Hollywood director Roman Polanski, who had just one year before directed one of the most revered and influential horror movies of all time, Rosemary’s Baby.
That summer, Polanski had been away in London, shooting the sci-fi thriller The Day of the Dolphin, while his wife – the 26-year-old actor Sharon Tate – returned home, kept company by their friends, screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski and his girlfriend, the coffee heiress Abigail Folger.
Tate was mere weeks away from giving birth to the couple’s first child, with Polanski planning to return in time for the birth. That night, she’d been dining out with friends, with the group returning to the idyllic Californian mansion before 10.00pm.
The peace of the quiet night was broken shortly after midnight, when Manson family members Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian scaled the fence with the intention of carrying out Manson’s evil request.
The first person they killed was Steven Parent, an 18-year-old friend of the young caretaker of the property. Parent, who had no connection to the rest of the victims, was shot while driving away from the caretaker’s cottage, located on the grounds.
The ‘family’ then made their way inside the main house, where they found Tate, Frykowski, Folger and Tate’s close friend celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring. Nobody within the circle of friends had any connection whatsoever to Manson and his family when they were awoken and forced into the living room.
When Frykowski asked what the group of intruders were doing, Watson replied, ‘I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business’. The slaughter that followed was bloody and callous.
Tate was the last to be murdered, and in her final moments begged to be allowed to live for just two more weeks, offering herself up as a hostage so that her unborn son could be safely delivered. Her killers showed no such mercy.
The scene that greeted housekeeper Winifred Chapman the following morning was indeed every bit as gruesome as Manson had demanded. Having been instructed to ‘leave a sign — something witchy’ by Manson, Atkins – a then 21-year-old girl who believed Manson was Jesus – had dipped a towel in Tate’s blood, using it to paint the word ‘pig’ on the front door.
The following day, the murders of beautiful, famous Sharon Tate and her friends dominated the news, with the eerie details of the crime scene casting a chill across sunny Los Angeles.
Grocery company executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary, a boutique owner, were among those to be left gravely disturbed by the violence, which they discussed with some horror while buying a paper at a local newsstand.
However, as they went to bed that night in their comfortable Los Feliz home, this wealthy yet ordinary couple could not have imagined that they would in any way be affected by the gruesome celebrity deaths a short 25-minute drive away.
Tragically, the following day, Rosemary’s daughter Susan and her boyfriend Joe would discover their bodies, and the bloodied messages on the wall reading ‘Rise’, ‘Death to pigs’. Scrawled on the refrigerator door were two misspelt words now notoriously connected with the case, ‘Healter [sic] Skelter’.
The Polanskis’ caretaker Garretson had initially been arrested as a suspect after the first night of murders, having been the only person left alive on the grounds. However, he had been in custody on the night the La Biancas died, meaning the real killer was still out there.
This knowledge, coupled with the ordinariness of the middle-class LaBiancas, sent a fresh wave of terror across Los Angeles.
As author and lawyer Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson, put it in his iconic true crime book Helter Skelter, ‘it meant it could happen to anyone anywhere’:
Sometimes fear can be measured. Among the barometers: In two days one Beverly Hills sporting goods store sold 200 firearms; prior to the murders, they averaged three to four a day.
Some of the private security forces doubled, then tripled, their personnel. Guard dogs, once priced at $200, now sold for $1,500.
It’s believed the Manson family had once attended a party at Leno and Rosemary’s next door neighbours’ house and so had simply headed to a place that was familiar to them, choosing the home after driving for several hours around affluent LA neighbourhoods.
Once again, Manson gave the orders for the killings – even tying the couple up himself – but didn’t inflict any of the numerous stab wounds which ended their lives.
Wanting to make the first murders look as though they were part of a ‘race war’, Manson ordered his followers to drop off the LaBiancas’ wallets in a Black neighbourhood, hoping this would suggest the crimes had been committed by individuals from the African American community.
Manson, who was a deeply racist individual, had hoped that a race war – which he falsely believed was prophesied in The Beatles’ track Helter Skelter would ultimately lead to him running the country, a delusion which illustrates the shocking extent of his egomania.
Summer turned to autumn and, in October 1969, a number of Manson family members were arrested at their Spahn Ranch in Death Valley, accused of vehicle theft. While jailed, Atkins, bragged to her fellow inmates that it was she who had stabbed Tate and tasted her blood.
By the end of the year, all those involved had been arrested, with the trial – combining the Tate and LaBianca murders – beginning in the first summer of the 1970s.
The murders and subsequent trial marked a turning point for America, forever tarnishing the free-spirited hippy movement with something darker and altogether more threatening.
Manson cut a frightening figure in the courtroom, slicing an X into his forehead which his followers duly copied. Towards the end of the trial, this was adapted into a full-blown swastika.
When asked about his makeshift tattoo, Manson gave the following chilling explanation:
The mark on my head simulates the dead head black stamp of rejection, anti-church, falling cross, devil sign, death, terror, fear.
Although not a hippy himself, Manson adopted all the trappings of one, with his long hair, style of dress and disregard for social norms.
Many of those following the trial saw him as representative of a countercultural revolution rather than what he really was: a damaged and manipulative individual who exploited the free love movement as a surface level tool to lure and influence his adoring followers.
Equally as terrifying to members of the public were the ‘Manson girls’, his young female followers who giggled throughout the trial and appeared to have no remorse whatsoever about their part in the crimes.
For many, these girls represented fears over how all-American youths – former choir girls and prom princesses – could be drawn in by a life of counterculture and rebellion, away from the social norms that had shaped the lives of their parents and grandparents.
Those who took to the witness stand told tales of orgies, polygamy and hallucinogenic drugs, while die-hard followers held a vigil outside the courtroom, shaving their heads in solidarity and singing verses from Manson’s songs.
In 1971, all Tate-LaBianca defendants were convicted of first-degree murder. After sentencing, Atkins told the judge, ‘you’d best lock your doors and watch your own kids’, a grimly accurate commentary on how so many families across America had become less easy in their homes.
This renewed sense of suspicion was evidenced in subsequent crackdowns on hitchhiking and increased police harassment of hippie communes, as well as in panicked headlines about the corruption awaiting young women straying too far from the family home and all its expectations.
Although the guilty individuals were locked away and unlikely ever to walk the streets again, for many Americans they represented a larger evil at play, a collective loss of innocence as well as crushed hopes for a better world.
Writing in her 1979 essay collection The White Album , renowned essayist Joan Didion reflected that many people she knew in LA regarded the 1960s as having definitively ended ‘at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive travelled like brushfire through the community’.
Didion’s observation that ‘The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled’, has been shared by various other writers and thinkers over the years.
However, Didion’s view isn’t shared by Dr Doug Haynes, reader in American Literature and Visual Culture at Sussex University’s Centre for American Studies.
Speaking with UNILAD, Dr Haynes described this argument as being ‘very convenient’, noting that the Rolling Stones Altamont concert in 1969 – where a teenager was stabbed by a Hell’s Angel mere feet from the stage – has also previously been hailed as marking the ‘end of the 60s’.
Dr Haynes explained:
So where things seem relatively benign, when something that could be sort of pegged as a 60s, kind of counterculture event, when something goes super wrong. It’s that kind of desire, that unconscious desire of society to see the back of all of it.
I think that’s how Manson works. And then history starts seeing him as a sign of other kinds of tensions.
Manson and his followers struck at the very heart of the American dream, destroying the lives of Hollywood elite and hardworking business owners alike.
This particular terror would go on to permeate throughout the years and decades, long after the hippies had become yuppies, stoking an age-old distrust of those who live outside of society’s norms.
Dr Haynes noted that the devil – so prominent in Manson imagery – is ‘really an important figure for Americans, and for the American imaginary’ from the Salem Witch Trials to the Cold War, far more so than in British culture:
In the white Protestant mind, the devil is always ready to be coming in through the chinks. It’s almost Puritan theology.
[…] This figure, whether it’s a kind of symbolic figure or whatever. That’s another thing we might say about Manson and the Cold War background to all of this and the production of an ‘other’. That sort of hostile other, that’s very important to American culture.
The shadow of Manson – who died in 2017 at the age of 83 – has continued to loom large in popular culture, and in Hollywood movies in particular, enduring as a source of anxiety and dark fascination.
The enormous success of the book Helter Skelter helped kickstart a popular appetite for true crime. Nowadays, those interested can browse the library of any hit true crime podcast and find at least one episode dedicated to the still notorious Manson family.
In the last few years alone, Manson’s crimes have been explored in the movies Charlie Says (2018), The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019) and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019), with directors drawn time and again to explore a harrowing lack of empathy when contrasted against a backdrop of ’60s free love.
Manson and his followers also had a direct impact on the burst of bloody horror cinema that emerged in the 1970s, with tropes of home invasions and grotesque inversions of family dynamics seen in films such as the Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
Of course, such themes can also be seen in modern horror, from The Strangers (2008) to Us (2019), the echoes of the Manson family lingering long after they’d grown old in their cells.
Reflecting on why Manson continues to pose such a foreboding presence so many years after the summer of love, Dr Haynes remarked that he was a ‘good publicist’, who had a way ‘of imprinting his face and his memory in the public ‘imagination’.
As noted by Dr Haynes, ‘Charlie Manson is a bit like a kind of face of Che Guevara, in a way, but with a much, much kind of different meaning’.
T-shirts still bear Manson’s image, with the countercultural mythology surrounding him overriding the reality of a selfish and deluded master manipulator, a mortal man whose traumatic upbringing was reflected in the callous treatment of his followers and those they killed.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
CreditsThe New York Times and 3 others
The New York Times